I like to cook my beans in champagne

Add a good dollop of fizz to sauces and salads. It really is worth it, says Annie Bell
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I returned from a recent visit to the Champagne region in France with some good news: there is absolutely no point in cooking with vintage champagnes or prestige champagnes: ``bog standard'' non-vintage will do nicely.

But what about the bubbles? I am afraid there is no great application for effervescence apart from splashing champagne over summer fruits. Heat kills bubbles, so if you are using champagne in a sauce you will get the distinct, rounded taste of the wine rather than fizz.

Whether you are drinking or cooking champagne, the classic marriages are with seafood - langoustines and lobster, turbot, pike-perch, salmon and scallops - chicken and veal. Most surprising was the local condemnation of drinking champagne with oysters: the first oyster may pass but by the second you have an effect resembling radioactive iodine. There again, oysters smothered in a foamy sabayon is fine. The more obvious no-nos are lemon and grapefruit, pungent spices, garlic, olives, strong cheeses and chocolate, and no olive oil, please. My kitchen began to resemble a chemistry laboratory as I experimented with reducing champagnes and still white wine in order to compare them. The difference between a classic beurre blanc made with champagne and one made with a white bordeaux was marked. The sauce made with champagne had a particular identity and acidity.

Champagne is a comparative newcomer so its use within Champenois cuisine is modern, and within the region quite limited. I found it where I expected to find it: in a beurre blanc, a sweet sabayon, a hollandaise and plenty of turbot in champagne sauce. But look beyond classic French cooking and it has a broader use.

Try a warm salad using fish: fry some lemon sole fillets or scallops in butter, remove the fish and add a splash of champagne to the pan, cook for a minute or two, then pour it over the fish and a salad base with a hint of champagne vinegar. Be sure to include some diced tomato which will bring out the flavour.

I love champagne sauces poured over vegetables: most are friendly with the exception of cabbage, artichokes and cauliflower. Champagne would lend itself to a variety of pasta dishes, and I found the unorthodox treatment of thinning a mayonnaise with a reduction worked a treat. For desserts, move from a brut to a demi-sec; red fruits, especially raspberries, have a particular affinity with champagne, also plums and figs in the autumn.

Compote of plums

with champagne

This particular ``ensemble'' of plums, vanilla and champagne is simple and elegant. Try the addition of a few raspberries.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 1 1/2 lb (680g) firm plums

2oz (57g) castor sugar

1 vanilla pod

5fl oz (140ml) demi-sec champagne

Preparation: Stone and quarter the plums and place in a non-reactive saucepan with the sugar, vanilla pod and 2fl oz (56ml) water. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook over a medium-low heat for 8 minutes, stirring once. The fruit should retain its shape.

Transfer fruit to a bowl, remove vanilla pod and simmer liquid until thick and syrupy: allow this and the fruit to cool to room temperature. Just before serving, combine the champagne with the syrup and pour it over the fruit. Serve with creme fraiche.

Haricot and French beans

with champagne butter sauce

This classic sauce is always good with chicken or fish. Vegetarians tend to miss out on ``beurre blanc'' so this medley can be served as a vegetarian dish or with a poached chicken breast on top.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 6oz (170g) haricot beans

6oz (170g) fine French beans, top and tailed

1 x 8oz (227g) beefsteak

tomato, skinned, seeded and diced

2oz (56g) young spinach leaves

1/4 tsp freshly ground coriander seeds

For sauce: 2oz (56g) shallots, peeled and finely chopped

1tbs champagne vinegar

5fl oz (140ml) brut champagne


7oz (198g) unsalted butter

2tbs double cream

Preparation: Soak haricot beans in water overnight. Preheat oven to 170C/340F/gas 4. Place beans in a casserole, cover with water and bring to boil on hob; skim off white foam. Cover and cook for 1 hour in oven, then drain. About 15 minutes before beans are cooked, make sauce: place shallots, vinegar and champagne in a small saucepan and reduce by two-thirds, strain through a sieve back into pan and season with salt. Whisk pieces of butter into the reduction over a low heat and stir in the cream; keep warm.

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook French beans, leaving them firm to the bite. Add warm butter beans and French beans to the sauce, then add spinach and leave on the heat until it wilts. At the last minute stir in the tomato and adjust seasoning with salt and coriander.